Upping sticks: moving to Sydney with Guardian Australia

I’m moving: not away from the Guardian, but with it. I’m going to be moving to Sydney for a secondment with the Guardian’s new Australian team. My role is editorial audience development, and will encompass SEO, analytics, community coordination, social media, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t know about yet. It’s a small, brilliant team full of interesting folks, with lots of exciting opportunities ahead; I can’t wait to get started.

It’s also literally half a world away. I’m lucky – we’re lucky – to be in a position where Grant can come with me, and can hopefully work and live alongside me, rather than having to be apart for what’s likely to be at least 9 months. We’re at a time in both our lives where upping sticks to somewhere with wombats and wallabies is not just possible but sounds like it could be bloody good fun. It will be hugely sad to be so far away from friends and families, but it will also be a very big adventure.

It turns out I own an awful lot of things I don’t need. And an astounding number of Nerf guns, which I clearly need to keep somewhere till we get back, along with the fire axes and the smoke machine and all of the books. If I owe you a coffee, a beer, an email or a chat, now’s a very good time to cash it in, while I’m still hunting for paperwork and trying to get our lives stowed away before we leave. Also if you’ve seen my birth certificate, I need that back.

And, in unrelated news, I’m hosting The Story conference next Friday. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

Is just writing a story enough, any more?

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What exactly is it that writers do, now stories can be told in so many ways? This post by @moongolfer links The Story, CERN and journalistic storytelling robots to come to the conclusion:

And writers? Well, they need to find a use for what they do, I guess. Because a story for its own sake written from a single point of view – digital or otherwise – is increasingly looking like it isn’t enough.

Journalists are facing down this problem online, now, as well as creative writers and other sorts of digital storytellers. In a way, it’s comforting to remember it’s not just written news but all sorts of writing that’s wrestling with these questions. And it’s also comforting to remember that things like Instapaper, the Long Good Read, Longreads and a vast array of others are whirring away, proving that for many people, yes, a written story is enough.

People are all made of stories

The Story program in chocolate

The Story program in chocolate, by Liz Henry

I promised myself I wouldn’t eat The Story until I was done digesting it.

I’m not sure that’s happened yet, but I’m getting there, and I think it’s time to start eating Meg Pickard. Maybe by the time I get to Danny O’Brien I’ll be finished putting all the pieces into place in my head. Maybe not. But I will at least be full of chocolate.

Last year I didn’t have the sort of perspective on The Story that I do this year. For one thing, I was speaking at it, which made it harder to think sensibly about the day, and brought me too close to one bit of it.

This time I got to relax and enjoy one of the best events I’ve ever been to. I tweeted – a lot – and I’ve pulled together a chronological run-through of the day in tweets on Storify. I suspect it may not mean enough for people who weren’t there to be able to decode the day; it was a busy day with a lot of astonishing ideas and people in it.

There are stories we tell ourselves, and stories we tell other people about ourselves. Often, it seems, they’re the same story. Last.fm’s model of frictionless sharing lets people build identity by doing stuff – the way we would before the internet, before fast fashion and the Kindle, with clothes, class and consumption habits the most available elements of our outward-facing selves.

On the other hand, Ellie Harrison‘s early work quantifying her habits and activities seems to almost reverse that process – aiming to learn more about precisely who you are by meticulously chronicling everything you do. (Though she did also build a vending machine that vends crisps every time the BBC website mentions news about the recession. I’m not sure that quite fits this particular thesis. But the Bring Back British Rail T-shirt definitely does.) The End‘s series of philosophical questions about death also lets you build up an identity around your actions – crystallising things you might not otherwise think about, then plotting you on a grid that includes your friends and major thinkers.

Tom Watson and Emily Bell discussing phone hacking was illuminating, and my most anticipated talk of the day (for obvious reasons). Another big theme that ran through many of the talks was the collision of reality and story – a junction where everyone in news media works, and where the phone hacking discussion and Liz Henry’s talk about fake lesbians provided strong, cautionary tales about what happens when the story takes over. Henry made an incredibly strong point that when someone’s fake identity takes over, people’s real struggles get lost; by attempting to speak for others, we drown their voices.

But  Scott Burnham provided a strong counterpoint, with a glorious tale about an art project in which dozens of people laid out hundreds of thousands of pennies to spell ‘Obsessions make my life worse and my work better’ on an Amsterdam pavement. As time passed people began to play with it, making new words out of the pennies, turning them over. And then the police cleared it up to stop it being stolen. His final point was that the things we do will always disappear, but the stories we create will always remain.

The more I think on it, the more I come back to Karen‘s talk as being the heart of the event, though I didn’t see it at the time. She talked about making something she was interested in, a story just for her – a whole magazine of it, in fact. But the magazine is also an extension of her self, a story she’s telling the world about who she is and how she operates. An externally constructed identity as well as a document of interest – like Matt Sheret‘s playlists, or (on a group level) Scott Burnham’s penny art, or The End’s philosophical mindmaps, or Amina‘s blog. Jeremy Deller tried to heal the wounds of a whole community by recreating events that changed its identity forever, by putting on costumes and playing with being something we’re not, something we used to be. Fiona Raby told stories about a collective future where not just our identities but our bodies were changed. Danny O’Brien talked about – well, about everything, frankly, very fast and with huge energy and expansiveness, but also about delusion and identity and what happens when group identities collide.

And Matthew Herbert made an album out of a pig, in an act which says something about the artist as well as the pig. He talked about the process of art, the investigation and discovery involved in making sound this way, finding out that pig labour is quiet and that tractors are natural bass tones. He talked about recording the sound of towers falling on 9/11, and being sent a recording of someone in Palestine being shot against a wall, and the ethics of making those things, those lives and deaths, into stories in sound.

We are all made of stories. Some of them are our own creations, some we own, some we tell inadvertently through action and through accretion, and some belong to other people, a long way outside our control.

What shape is a story?

A blog post is the wrong shape for pulling together strands from The Story. The day was enormously disparate – so many tales – but there were common strands that tied talks together across disciplines and across wildly varying conceptions of narrative and of story.

Listen. Because listening generously creates an articulate speaker. Moments in Karl James’s deeply moving talk stuck out for me like sore thumbs: I am not a journalist, he said, and therefore I get a better story. I can ask more questions. How do my questions differ from what journalists ask?

As a journalist, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. Always you try to listen, but always you have the shape of the story to contend with. Literally, in some cases, for print: the story is a certain shape, a certain length and width and height with a certain size and shape of picture that goes with it; the form is constrained and constraining, and the questions you ask end up being designed to elicit answers that fit in and with the space you have available. The story gets chopped up into pieces, and the parts that fit become canonical while the rest are left as fragments that do not get retold. Good journalism is surgery.

Fragments. The idea that stories are falling apart, narratives disintegrating into small pieces that carry meaning by themselves but that are no longer embedded into larger story structures. And that by escaping from stable structures these fragments become building blocks, “accreting like coral” (to borrow @glinner’s phrase) and forming new, more serendipitous narratives.

This is a problem I’ve been running up against in journalism since I started journalisting – stories that in former times could be pinned to the page or confined to the lead slot on the evening bulletin can’t be, any more. They twist and turn and escape their boundaries. There is always more that can be said, context to the content the curators choose – like the video Adam Curtis showed of an interview in Helmand, where, once you reached outside the shape the story had to fit, you found an even more fascinating narrative, that fascinated more because it didn’t make sense – because it felt real, because it wasn’t neat or tidy or enclosed. Grand narratives are disintegrating, being questioned and contextualised in unexpected ways by the people formerly known as the audience.

Some speakers at The Story – Phil Gyford, Lucy Kimbell – are tackling this head-on in fields that aren’t (necessarily) newsgathering. Journalists should be talking to other storytellers, because all sorts of people are dealing with this fragmentation of narrative and they’re doing it innovatively and creatively and we are idiots if we are not looking for the links and the lessons between news storytelling and other creative practices.

Because the coral accretions of those fragments become things like The IT Crowd, or Cornelia Parker‘s objects that carry huge cultural significance despite being divorced from their original contexts. Like atoms in the ether, stories bubble into existence and coalesce whether there is anyone there to “read” them or not; like our host Margaret Robertson’s declaration that our clothes tell stories about ourselves; like @kcorrick’s Sole of The Story. Like conference notes that become art objects and accrue their own stories. And like LARPers frothing about zombies and turning fragments of experience into solid narratives, curating the experience themselves.

And because stories are still hugely powerful, and not always benign. Jane, in Karl James’s Dialogue Project, warns against becoming your story, when that story is damaging or damaged. Mark Stevenson recasts the metanarrative of global disaster into a story about how everything is getting better, really. Matt Adams uses text messages to tell stories with teenagers, in an attempt to shape a world where they are more informed and more aware of difficulties facing them. Cultures tell grand stories to themselves, to define themselves, and a grand story can shape as well as define.

This blog post doesn’t have a beginning or a middle, and it isn’t really going to have an end. I’m rewiring my brain to cope with new concepts – I genuinely feel like several speakers yesterday took the top of my head off and I am still finding unexpected cogs in peculiar places and gluing the results back together. There will be more, I am certain.

[edited to add link to Antony Mayfield's summary of Adam Curtis's talk]

Zombies and stories

I’m still collecting my thoughts from The Story yesterday – so much to digest & absorb from some absolutely fantastic speakers in all sorts of disciplines. I’m going to blog once I’ve significantly rewired my brain to take in all that was said, but in the mean time, here are my slides and notes from the talk I made (including all the bits I skipped over because I ran out of time). I think there’s going to be an audio podcast uploaded too – I’ll add the link once it’s up.